February 11, 2008
We encounter the idea of paradise for the first time in these verses (21-29). Now, nothing excites me more than the notion of Jannah ("the garden") "graced with flowing streams": like you, Madeleine, I am excited by the language here. My whole life has been devoted to the pursuit of this garden as suggested by the title of my intellectual autobiography, Desperately Seeking Paradise.
This same vision of paradise is repeated elsewhere in the Qur'an with variations of phrasing. The rivers are such "as time does not corrupt" (47:15) its fruits and shade will be everlasting (13:35). It will be a place of perpetual bliss enjoying the fruits of our good deeds in the forgiveness of our sustainer.
But before I get carried away with thoughts of rest from my labours there are a host of earthly complications to deal with. Are Muslims paradise obsessed? Is our particular promise of paradise really an incitement to mayhem and murder?
Hardly. Paradise has to be earned. It is not for those who spread corruption on the earth. And I have to admit I find it curious that, on one hand, people find Muslims too focused on religion in this life, fanatic about wanting Islamic states and Islamic law. And then, on the other hand, consider us too paradise obsessed, determined to get away from this world too quickly and destructively thereby bequeathing the task of state building to those unscathed and left behind.
Muslims are no more paradise obsessed then members of any other religion. Have those making such claims never heard a Sunday sermon in a Christian church of any denomination? Certainly, they have not consulted any of the proliferating websites devoted to the Rapture, the doctrine of transport to paradise especially favoured by American evangelical Christian groups. And what about all those images of winged people sitting on clouds?
The hereafter, for people of faith, is part of our true existence. This life is not all we are or will be. However, the completion of our existence, whether in paradise or hell, is beyond the reach of our daily perception. The Qur'an gives us a "parable" using allegory and metaphor to intimate by analogy to the things we know. We achieve a proper realisation of how to live by keeping the two parts of our existence, here and hereafter, in balance.
And what of the companions we will have in the supreme triumph (4:13) of attaining paradise? They will be our spouses pure. In this passage (2:25) the term used is Azwaj, plural of Zawj, meaning spouse. In Arabic this word signifies either of two components of a couple, that is the male as well as the female.
In four places in the Qur'an the word used for the companions ishur, from which comes the much used term houris. The word has many connotations variously interpreted as signifying pure and soulful. The most important point, however, is that once again the word can signify either a male or a female. And in the Qur'an no number is ever mentioned. So what of all the "72 virgins" that supposedly incite the activities of the paradise obsessed?
What the Qur'an actually says is that all who enter paradise will have life renewed (56:34). In the everlasting bliss of the eternal we will all, male and female, be restored to our pure state, ie virginal innocence. The only antidote to the misogyny marshalled by Muslims in their history is reading and understanding the words of equality presented in the book.
Oh, and there's one other popular misconception to be borne in mind: paradise is not self-selecting. It is not we, the individual believers, who determine or even can ever know which of us gets to paradise. The decision is not ours. It belongs to God alone who knows everything, just as this passage concludes. A natural corollary of this, Madeleine, is that paradise is not the sole preserve of Muslims. Seekers of truth everywhere, and for all time, who behave in a good, moral and ethical manner have equal claim. Human presumption has a great deal to answer for, but the greatest must be the willingness to hand out or assume one has a straight ticket to paradise simply because of one's particular beliefs. To me, it's the most irreligious affront of all, nothing more than usurping God for our own purposes.
The environmentalists, you suggest Madeleine, might be troubled by these verses. I will deal with what the Qur'an says about nature and the environment in a future blog. But let me point out here that gardens need to be tended: in the Qur'anic scheme, people and nature work in symbiosis.
This image of paradise inspired not just the Islamic art of garden building, wonderful examples of which grace traditional Muslim cities around the world, but also such notions as "inviolate zones" - green belts around cities, areas set aside for conservation of wildlife, and forest reserves where the cutting of trees was forbidden. Religion, after all, is or should be the endeavour to make this earth as much of a paradise as possible.
How Is Our Fate Decided?
February 11, 2008
I like some of the language here (21-29); the earth is seen almost like a picnic cloth spread out for humanity and God "builds" the sky. These are lovely images of how creation is for the sustenance and nurturing of human existence, but I can also see how they might be troubling to an environmentalist because they make human beings central, and the natural world is there to serve human needs. You might be dealing with this later but I just wanted to raise the question.
Also in these verses, the question crops up as to how Islam understands the fate of those born before the prophet's revelation, or those who have lived and died without ever hearing of the prophet. Will they all be judged by God as well, and can they be saved from hell? I know that this was a problematic issue for Christians and different denominations have come to different conclusions. Can you give us some idea of how this is tackled in Islam?
Much of these verses seem to again be about Islam establishing its claim to the truth. In Muhammad's lifetime, such a message was an essential part of establishing the new religion of Islam, but is that tricky in today's world of hyper-diversity where there is a pressing need for religious tolerance?